Joe “Popeye” Mitchell, a Billings native who steered his way to regional prominence by driving Yellowstone National Park’s iconic yellow buses for 35 years, died on Jan. 2 in Olympia, Washington, at the age of 95.
“He lived a pretty adventurous life,” said Peter Fadde, Mitchell’s nephew.
“When John Wayne came to Yellowstone for a week, he drove him around,” said Ed Fadde, Peter’s brother.
In an interview with the Billings Gazette in 2007, Mitchell said he met people from around the world while working summers in the park, including the king and queen of Nepal.
"I loved that job more than any job I had," he said in the interview.
Born in Billings
Mitchell was born on July 23, 1922, in Billings, the third oldest in a family of six. His mother, Pearl Pyock (Bubulj) Mitchell, had emigrated from Lika, Yugoslavia, to join her parents in Red Lodge in 1913. Mitchell’s father, Joe Bubulj, died of Rocky Mountain fever in 1933 while working in the small town of Klein, just outside Roundup, leaving Pearl to raise the six children on her own.
The family scraped by on a small farm on the Billings Bench, Peter said. During World War II the Mitchells moved to Detroit to find jobs supporting the war effort. Joe Mitchell, unable to enlist in the military, was employed by the Cadillac Motor Car Co.
Mitchell returned to Billings in 1947. His mother — whose obituary claims she was the first woman taxi driver in Musselshell County in a business she formed with her husband — encouraged him to take the test to drive a Yellowstone bus, which required him to maneuver up the narrow and steep Black Otter Trail.
"As my turn was approaching, I was getting more and more nervous as I had never driven anything except a car," Mitchell wrote in a booklet about his bus-driving years. " … When I first got behind the steering wheel, I thought, 'Holy cow.' I felt like I was behind the steering wheel of a big Greyhound bus."
He passed the test and hopped a train to Gardiner to begin what would be a long career in the nation’s first national park.
At first he began driving the mid-1930s White model 706 touring buses until they were phased out, said Leslie Quinn, one of Mitchell’s friends and a co-worker.
When not working in the park, Mitchell was employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad. He’d take leave from that job in the summers to work in Yellowstone until retiring from the park position after the summer of 1996.
“His love of Yellowstone would result in his requesting, not always successfully, a leave of absence virtually every summer, and he told me that he reported his poor mother as ‘on her deathbed’ many summers, only to return after the Yellowstone summer season to report on her miraculous recovery,” Quinn recalled in an email. “Often in such summers, he’d be assigned the run to meet the Northern Pacific train in Livingston, and he would don sunglasses, turn his collar up, and pull his hat down to find his passengers in the station and hope to not be recognized by any railroad colleagues.”
He received his Popeye nickname from fellow drivers because of his short, stout stature, square jaw and his fondness for smoking a pipe.
“Popeye was the senior guide and mentor to many of us,” Quinn said of his arrival to the park in 1980. “His wry sense of humor, deep knowledge of all things Yellowstone, and good judgment made him the company’s ‘go to’ driver for all sorts of special jobs, including taking foreign royalty on tours of the park, and using a single-lane fire road to take Lady Bird Johnson to the summit of the park’s 10,243-foot Mount Washburn in the late 1970s.”
Mitchell and his friend at Aspen View Retirement Residence, Frenchy La Jesse, memorialized his career in the park by self-publishing several editions of the 45-page paperback titled "My Thirty-Five Years Driving Bus in Yellowstone National Park."
“He’s kind of the legendary Yellowstone Park figure,” said Peter Fadde, a fact that didn’t hit home until he worked in the park during the summer of 1975.
Yellowstone seems to figure heavily in the Mitchell family lore. The Faddes' mother, Ruby, met her first husband while working in the park.
It was during visits to relatives in Billings when Peter developed some of his most enduring memories of his uncle.
“It was all about hunting and fishing,” Peter said.
Mitchell would take them on a relative’s ranch near the Crow Reservation to hunt deer.
“He knew where all the good fishing holes were,” Peter added.
One of Mitchell’s favorite pastimes in the park when he had free time was to fish, he told the Gazette, always carrying a fishing rod in the back of his buses.
“As he worked and enjoyed Yellowstone across decades of changing park management, he would offer his displeasure with the change from unlimited trout catches to limits that recognized the necessity of maintaining a healthy fishery: ‘These days,’ he would offer, ‘you have to be a criminal to get a decent meal!’” Quinn wrote.
Peter also remembers his uncle as a fierce gin rummy player.
“He was no-holds barred,” Peter said and laughed. “You’d think he’d give a 10-year-old kid a break, but he’d just give us money and then take it all away.”
Mitchell will be buried in Mountview Cemetery in Billings where his mother and two sisters — Mildred Williams and Angelyn Mitchell — are also interred. He was also preceded in death by a brother, Michael Mitchell, and his sister Ruby Fadde. He is survived by the youngest of his sisters, Marjorie Milligan of Olympia, Washington.
A memorial service will be held on Saturday, Jan. 13, at 10 a.m. at St. Nicholas Eastern Orthodox Church, 401 Lewis Ave., to be followed by burial at MountView Cemetery. All are welcome.